Project Tips & Techniques, From Start to Finish

by Derreck Bryans

Woodworking is a hobby and profession which is enjoyed by many people. For the hobbyist, a few hours here and there seems to be all that our busy lives will allow. For the professional, time is money. I am fortunate that I can sell some of my pieces, as well as being a hand tool hobbyist.

Over the years, through both experience and articles I’ve read in various woodworking publications, I have devised some tips which I have found can enhance the quality of your projects and cut back on time previously wasted in the woodshop. They are listed below, in order from the start to the finish of a project.

  1. Keep an Open Mind
    I find that most woodworkers I talk to are either power tool or hand tool users. There is nothing wrong with being one way or the other. I have found, though, that having knowledge and training in both disciplines can make you a more well rounded woodworker. I don't mind face jointing 10 board feet of wood at a time, but I would find doing 100 bf a daunting task. As well, I would sooner use a shoulder plane to sneak up on the proper width of a tenon instead of trimming it with a tablesaw, only to make it too narrow.

  2. Buy the Best You Can Afford
    No matter if it is a tablesaw or a handplane, buy the best tools and equipment you can afford. Experience for me has proven that in most cases the pricier tools and equipment are that way for a reason. It could mean the difference of a tablesaw fence deflecting or not, or a smoothing plane that needs 10 minutes or 10 hours of fettling and tuning.

  3. Keep Tools Sharp
    This is a big stumbling block for many enthusiasts. We think that if we can get one more crosscut or one more mortise chopped that we will sharpen after. Don't do it. Take a few minutes and hone that chisel, or switch that saw blade for the spare and send the dull one away. Dull tools mean dangerous slips and inaccuracy. If the action or feel of the cutting process changes, or it takes more force for the procedure, sharpening is the solution.

  4. Use Drawings & Cutlists
    I used to think that drawings and cutlists took too much time away from my shop time. Not true. In actual fact, I spent more time scratching my head and fixing my mistakes because I couldn't see the problem until it was too late. A drawing doesn't have to be draftsman quality. A simple sketch will do. It will help to make sure all of the proportions are okay. A cutlist is a very important step in the build process because it gives you the dimensions of all of the parts, and it is the best guide for purchasing the materials for your project.

  5. Rough Lumber
    If you have the initial monetary means, consider purchasing a planer and jointer and buying rough lumber. In the long run, this is a money saver. Benchtop planers are very well built nowadays, and have really come down in price in the last few years. This will also allow you to use dimensions other than the average 3/4". Just for example, rough sawn kiln dried red oak can be had for about $3-$3.50 a board foot in my area. S4S (surfaced 4 sides) from a home improvement store can be in excess of $10 a bf!

  6. Buy 10%-20% More Wood Than Required
    Who out there has been shy with the materials for a project? Raise your hands. It has happened to everyone.

  7. Acclimatize Wood
    Wood is a material that absorbs and expels moisture indefinitely. Any time I purchase any kind of project wood, I let it acclimatize to my shop. Depending on the time of year, Stacking and stickering the wood in my shop for at least a month seems to keep wood movement to a minimum. As well, I will joint and plane my wood to within about 1/8" of finished thickness and stack and sticker the parts for a few weeks to rid the wood of any excess trapped moisture or tension.

  8. Rough Cut Pieces
    It is a lot easier to joint and plane smaller, more manageable pieces that are close to project dimensions than to try planing and jointing full lengths of lumber.

  9. Match Grain
    The difference between a good project and a great project is how the grain is utilized. A tabletop with cathedral grain looks great while rift sawn (straight grain) is the best match for the rails and stiles of a frame and panel door.

  10. Read Grain Direction
    Reading grain direction should become second nature to you. In most cases, the grain direction on the edge of the board should give a good clue to the face grain direction and vice versa. Tear-out is a heartbreaker in both machine and hand work. In some instances, if you still experience tear-out going with the grain, try the opposite direction. If all else fails, slightly dampen the surface with water to raise the grain. This usually does the trick.

  11. Keep Track of Parts
    A very important step in a project is keeping track of the parts. Identify the part by writing what it is on the endgrain of the square end.  As well, use the "cabinetmaker's mark" on the flat face and square, jointed edge. These are your reference faces for layout. They don't have to be the good face and edges; most of the time they are the inside faces of my projects.

  12. Measure Accurately
    A frequent cause of mistakes is mis-measurements. If at all possible, try not to measure with a tape measure where accuracy counts. The hooks on the ends of tapes are notoriously wonky. The old "burn an inch" theory (measuring from the 1" mark) can lead to even worse mistakes. I like to use a combination of metal rules and story sticks for accuracy.

  13. Dry Fit Before Gluing
    Before using glue, do a trial run without glue to identify any problems that may occur in the process. This way you have a chance to change things before you end up stressed out with a sticky mess.

  14. Alternate Clamps
    When gluing up a large surface such as a tabletop, alternate the clamp locations (under and over) to avoid cupping the surface one way or the other. This method will even out the clamping force to make a flatter surface.

  15. Sandpaper Grits
    When you are sanding, work through the grits. You aren't saving any time if you start off with 220 grit. Depending on the wood and the circumstances, start with 100 grit and work through 120 grit, 150 grit, up to 180 grit (for softwoods) or 220 grit (for hardwoods). I find it is usually unnecessary to use any higher grits.

  16. Match Finishes to End Use
    Depending on the project, match the finish to the end use. Sure, polyurethane is a very durable finish and I like to use it on very high use surfaces (such as a kitchen tabletop). The only problem is that this particular finish takes a long time to cure, thus has a higher instance of contamination. It also takes longer to re-coat. I have started to use water-based polyurethane and I like the results. It is as durable as its oil counterpart, and is much faster drying.

    If the article isn't going to see a lot of handling or abuse, you have a much broader choice of finishes. A cherry wall shelf looks great with a wiped-on oil finish, and an occasional table really stands out with numerous coats of a shellac finish rubbed out to a deep shine. Also, don't forget to put a coat of wax on the project when all is said and done. Although it doesn't have any water penetration qualities, it will keep the surface slippery thereby helping to keep it scratch-free.

I hope that at least a few of these tips will be of some help to you for future projects. I find a hassle-free build is just as satisfying as the project end result.

Derreck Bryans hails from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada and has been woodworking since he "could pick up a smoothing plane." He works full time as a foreman on road building and installing sewers and watermains, and has a part time furniture business.  Derreck builds mostly Mission, Shaker, and Early Canadian furniture. He uses hand tools for most of his work, but keeps an open mind.

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